Architecture

ARCHITECTURE BRUT OR DEMI-SEC?

serveimageIs every building made out of concrete automatically Brutalist? The answer is yes, according to a recent article on Habitat in the New York Times. But this is a gross over-simplification. Brutalism refers to buildings that dramatize the rough character of concrete. Paul Rudolph’s striated Art and Architecture Building (1963) at Yale is the preeminent example. The roughened concrete is used throughout the building, inside and out. The A & A exhibits another quality of Brutalism—it’s monumental. But not all architects who exposed concrete were striving for this quality. Pier Luigi Nervi, for example, built exclusively in concrete but gave the material a smooth, sculptural quality that is anything but brutal. I. M. Pei’s Society Hill Towers in Philadelphia use a poured-in-place concrete facade that is similarly plastic, smooth surfaces with rounded  corners. Many architects went to great lengths to make precast elements that were machinelike and precise, not qualities generally associated with Brutalism. (The glassy concrete of Piano and Ando today is likewise non-Brutalist.) The precast concrete of Philip Johnson during his neo-classical period is almost delicate. Which brings us to Habitat. It is all exposed concrete on the exterior, since the boxes were precast in a factory, although great efforts were made to make the material as smooth and blemish-free as possible. (At one point the option of building the project out of steel was considered.) Safdie used concrete not because he was seeking a rough and monumental aesthetic, but because he wanted to show how prefabrication could be used to make mass housing. There is another litmus test of Brutalism. Buildings like Habitat remain  popular with their users. If people don’t hate it, it can’t be Brutalist.

THE FINAL WORD

Eeero Saarinen and Kevin Roche with model of TWA, 1957

Eero Saarinen and Kevin Roche with model of TWA, 1957

“Dwelling narrowly on the legacy of designers gives the impression that architectural history concerns great men, not great places,” writes Lance Hosey in the Huffington Post. Hosey was commenting on an essay that I wrote recently in Architect, in which I speculated about what might have happened if certain celebrated unbuilt projects had actually been realized. It is fashionable to think that architecture is not the creation of great men—or great women—but is it true? Does anyone really believe that the spirit of Louis Kahn did not manifest itself in his designs? When he died, that spirit died with him. When Eero Saarinen died, Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo continued the practice, but Saarinen’s mercurial creativity was absent. The art of building is a peculiar art that relies on team work—in that sense it resembles film-making rather than novel-writing. But as in film-making, the auteur is often present. I remember working for Moshe Safdie in the 1970s. There were a dozen or so people in the office, but when Safdie was away, a certain inertia set in as people waited for him to return and make decisions. The decisions might concern alternatives developed by someone else, but there was never any doubt about who would have the final word.

HIGH TECH 0, LOW TECH 1

serveimageNorman Foster is building an office building in downtown Philadelphia. The Comcast Innovation and Technology Center, a 1,121-foot skyscraper, will be the  tallest building in the city. Passing by the other day, I noticed elevator cabs scuttling up and down the side of the building. They reminded me of the external elevators on the Pompidou Center in Paris. Typical High Tech detail, I thought to myself, before I realized that these were construction elevators. The actual core is deep inside the building in the conventional fashion. And unlike Foster’s Hongkong & Shanghai Bank building, the structure is concealed as well (except for a vestigial expression  of cross bracing on the otherwise pristine glass facade). Like almost all contemporary office buildings, in fact like almost all buildings of any kind today, this is a glass box. How times have changed! The truth is that the exposed structure and plumbing and ductwork that characterized High Tech architecture never made much sense. It weathered badly, for one thing—the Pompidou Center required an expensive facelift after only 20 years. The goal of infinitely adaptable architecture didn’t make sense either. The time-tested way to adapt is not to change a building but to move to another one. In 2014, the London Sunday Times reported that Lloyd’s was considering moving out of its headquarters building. It had already relocated a quarter of its operations to less expensive premises, and was subletting the space. The newspaper quoted Lloyd’s chief executive Richard Ward: “There is a fundamental problem with this building. Everything is exposed to the elements, and that makes it very costly.” Lloyd’s did not move, but it did sell the building to a Chinese insurance company (at a steep mark-down because of the inside-out design), and now leases space. So much for adaptive architecture. High Tech 0, Low Tech 1.

SHRINK WRAPPED

serveimageThese days, urban buildings are playing just one penny-whistle tune: glass, glass, glass. It’s as if there were a material shortage and we had run out of everything else. I don’t miss exposed concrete, but what about limestone and brick, terra cotta and granite? But no, architecture has been reduced to one material—even spandrels and soffits are glass. What explains this phenomenon? Well, of course it’s cheap. The engineer figures out the structure, and the architect wraps it in a glass skin. And the helpful glass manufacturers work out the details for you. It’s also easier to design. No more worrying about junctions between materials, no more textures or finishes, no more colors, no more studying shadowing effects. Just wrap it up and it’s ready to go. Nor do you have to worry about energy—all-glass buildings are as green as you want. Houston, Boston, London, Dubai—it doesn’t matter. It used to be that cities had distinctive architectural characters, derived from different materials, different climates, different tastes. No more. It’s just all glass, all the time.

ALL THAT GLITTERS ISN’T BRONZE

P1000214I went to see the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C. The building isn’t open to the public yet so I could only see the exterior. Yet because of its location on the National Mall this is one building whose exterior appearance is key. It’s the last structure on the north side of the Mall, down the hill from the Washington Monument. From a distance, the museum has a nice scale and an evocative form. The corona shape has always seemed symbolically right to me, recalling both traditional Yoruba tribal art and a Brancusi sculpture. The boxy glass penthouse introduces a mundane element that doesn’t really enhance the corona, but it disappears as you get closer. Close-up, the corona shape turns out to be insubstantial—a metal shroud—which is a bit of a letdown. Moreover, the patterned screen that is meant to recall Charleston and New Orleans ironwork, instead looks like the world’s largest ventilating grille. Its flimsiness is emphasized by the contrast with the handsome stone-clad canopy over the entrance, and the irregular cut-outs that form viewing windows. The skin was originally to be bronze, but when this proved expensive—and extremely heavy—painted aluminum was substituted. Unfortunately, it  sparkles in the sun, and its brass-like finish lacks the gravitas of dark, moody bronze. Indeed, the effect is cheerfully commercial, not what we expect in a national museum. Does bronze-coated aluminum become dull with time like the real thing? I certainly hope so.